A bulking phase for most people is a relatively straightforward process. You’ll choose an endpoint, eg 3 – 6 months, or a certain body weight goal, and then focus solely on consuming a calorie surplus and training hard in the gym to build muscle mass.
The whole point of a bulking phase is to gain as much lean muscle mass as possible whilst also getting stronger in the process. While this may seem straightforward, it’s actually surprisingly difficult to know when to stop bulking and then what to do next.
What to do after a bulking phase? After a bulking phase, you’ll have gained some excess body fat as a result of the increased calorie surplus which is needed to build muscle mass. Therefore, you will need to enter a cutting phase to lose the excess body that you gained during a bulking phase.
Bulking phases may seem straightforward but in my experience, people often find them harder to see noticeable progress and results than the often “harder” cutting phase.
In this article, I’ll not only cover what to do after a bulking phase but I’ll give some guidelines on how and when you should end one as this is often a stumbling point for many bulkers.
How Long Until You See Results From Bulking
Bulking is subjective. If you are training all body parts with equal attention, muscle gains will be spread across multiple muscle groups and making it close to impossible to notice a 1-2lb gain in muscle mass.
Depending on your build, it might even be difficult to notice a 5-10lb increase due to the longer time frame needed to build this much muscle. When you factor in fat gain and water retention during a bulk (because both will occur) it can be difficult to know when to stop bulking.
The length of time it takes to see results will be completely subjective and vary for every single person. Squatting an extra 50lbs is likely going to show progress from a bulk, going up a shirt size could do it as well, and most commonly, the scale weight going up can all be signs that you are seeing results from your bulk.
The only issue being, are these results that you actually want?
For most people, the only real result you want to see from bulking is an increased amount of lean muscle mass and an improved body composition. Bulking isn’t a strength-based term, it’s purely used by people looking to build muscle mass.
For untrained beginners, most research states that you can build muscle mass at a rate of 0.5-1lb of lean muscle tissue per week. This is generalized and will vary from individual to individual but in a year of solid training and bulking, you can expect to gain as much as 25lbs of lean muscle mass.
Therefore it could take anywhere from 6-12 months depending on your starting point to see results from bulking. Once you do see noticeable results, it can be difficult to know what to do next…
What to Do After a Bulking Phase
There are different types of bulking phases and the path you choose will heavily influence what you should do after a bulking phase (alongside specific goals). You can do a traditional bulk and cut, or a lean bulk followed by a maintenance phase.
The reason this will influence what you should do after a bulking phase is because your body composition will be completely different depending on your bulking approach. This will also be influenced by your body fat percentage which I’ll cover shortly.
If you’ve hit a bulk hard and opted for the dirty bulking option where you eat as much as possible each day whilst also getting a large portion of your calories from foods lacking nutrient density or “junk” foods as they are more commonly known. Chances are you’re ending the bulk with a lot of excess body fat.
In this instance, you’ll have no other option but to go on a cutting phase and one that lasts a very long time in order to get back to optimal body composition and muscle building state.
If you’ve opted for a lean bulk where you’ve kept the calorie surplus relatively low, you can either continue until progress stalls, stay at a maintenance level where you look to progress weights in the gym without a calorie surplus, or go on a cutting phase.
A lean bulk offers the most flexibility but before knowing what to do after a bulk, you first need a better idea of how long a typical bulk will last.
When Should You Stop Bulking
My general recommendation is to never go above 15% body fat when bulking. I cover most of the issues relating to this in another post about “why dirty bulking is a waste of time” but the general overview is that once you go past a body fat percentage of around 15%, your ability to optimally build muscle mass diminishes.
You start to store more surplus calories as body fat as your nutrient partitioning starts to shuttle more nutrients to be stored as body fat rather than in the muscle tissue (researcher study).
You become less sensitive to insulin (the bodybuilding hormone), testosterone production slows down and multiple other negative bodybuilding effects occur. While 15% is not the hard and true number, you should use this as a marker to show that you need to start a new phase to better optimize your body for growing muscle.
While certain time periods work as well for a bulk like 12 weeks, 18 weeks, and 24-week bulks, one person can gain an uncontrollable amount of body fat in that period whereas someone else might only just be tapping into their muscle-building potential with their calorie surplus and weightlifting sessions.
Therefore, I’d usually recommend stopping a bulk at 15% body fat.
How to Cut After Bulking
For most people, you’ll likely start to cut after a bulking phase (unless you’re in the small minority who have gone through a lean bulk to maintenance phase) and with this, there are a few factors that you’ll need to take into consideration:
Bulking endpoint: I’ve just covered this earlier but your endpoint of bulk will determine how you approach a cut.
If you’re starting with a higher body fat percentage, you’ll need to make significantly more drastic changes to your diet and cardio routine than if you are starting with a lower body fat percentage and only need to adjust calories and cardio slightly.
Duration of the cut: If you are using the cutting phase as a slight body recomp period, the cut should only last 4-8 weeks and is used to prime you for another bulking phase. This approach is best used when you are making use of a very long term bulk and need to manage excess fat gain and hormones.
On a recomp, you can be more excessive on the calorie deficit whilst hitting cardio hard. As this will be an approach used for a short period only, it will be muscle sparing and not too taxing mentally either.
If however, the cut is going to be a long-term phase with the end goal of getting ripped at a sub 10% body fat percentage, you’ll need to approach it differently. For these cuts, you’ll need to be much more deliberate and cautious with your plan to retain as much muscle mass as possible.
Calories and cardio: Finally, your weight training routine should stay the same as your bulking phase (what you did to build muscle in the first place should be the thing you continue to do in order to keep it while cutting) but your calorie deficit and cardio expenditure need to be carefully considered.
If you go too hard too soon, you’ll have no tools left to use when you need them the most towards the backend of a cutting phase. What I mean but this is that if you can lose weight and drop body fat on a 200kcal deficit with an additional 500 steps per day, this will be more beneficial than starting off with a 1,000kcal deficit and 10,000 steps per day.
The reason for this being that your body adapts to changes over time so what was needed to lose an initial 5lbs will not work to lose the next 5lbs. Therefore, if you drop calories too much at the start of a cut and increase cardio, you’ll only make a cut more difficult towards the end.
After all, you can only drop calories so much!
Therefore, when cutting after a bulk, try to make progress on the least possible effort and change. This is a longer approach but it will enable you to continually drop body fat over time without becoming fatigued and unmotivated.
A bulking phase can usually be tricky to navigate and therefore before considering what you’ll do next, you need to have a sensible and clear endpoint. My recommendation would be to bulk until you get to a certain body fat percentage have this be a maximum of 15%.
Once you reach this body fat percentage your options for what to do after a bulking phase become much clearer. You can either reduce your calories to a maintenance amount and continue to train as normal or enter a cutting phase with an initial 100kcal-300kcal deficit to test your response.
If you’re about to enter a cutting phase, I’d recommend checking out my post on what you should expect from a cutting timeline so that you can plan this next phase efficiently and optimally.
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